Fehr says the players are ready to come back to the bargaining table right now. Bettman and the owners say they won’t return until the players agree to negotiate within the framework of their last offer. In other words: Accept the basic concepts in the offer and then tweak the numbers. The players won’t commit to that because it would mean, in essence, giving in on the issue of deferred pay.
It is all very complicated, especially to those who just want to see hockey. Clearly, the owners are counting on the fact that hockey fans are perhaps the most loyal in sports. In 2005-06, the season after the lockout, NHL attendance actually went up. Fans may have been disgusted with both sides while they were fighting, but they loved the sport too much to turn their backs on it once they stopped.
The owners expect that to happen again. As soon as the doors open to their arenas, fans will pour through them. That may be the case. But there’s always risk with a niche sport, because even a 10 percent drop-off in attendance league-wide would be financially difficult to swallow. NHL owners count on playing at close to capacity (witness the Washington Capitals) in order to break even. If they make the playoffs, that is when they usually start to make money.
It seems remarkable that every major labor dispute in sports in recent memory has been a lockout, not a strike. The NFL owners locked their players out in the spring of 2011 (and then their officials a year later); the NBA owners locked their players out last fall and now, the NHL has locked its players out for a third time since Bettman became commissioner.
It seemed impossible going into the summer that the two sides could be so far apart this time that there would be a lengthy work stoppage. Everyone was making money and the sport’s popularity has soared the last couple of years. The best TV contract in league history is in place.
And yet, six weeks in, no one is even talking about a settlement. At the moment, there are negotiations going on to figure out a way to begin negotiating again.
That’s not encouraging. But it does leave Bettman a lot of free time for news conferences, ribbon-cuttings and perhaps doing some judging at a county fair or two. Everyone in hockey is fiddling while the sport continues to burn.
For more by the author, visit his blog at feinsteinonthebrink.com. To read his previous columns for The Washington Post, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.